My not-so-friendly library, boring teachers, and other marketing interactions

[cross-posted at the TechLearning blog]

My city’s public library is a wonderful place. It hosts a variety of
well-attended events, has a phenomenal children’s section, and serves as a real
hub for the community. But its formal communications stink.

The very first time that you have an overdue book, the initial notice that
you receive says that failure to pay your fines may result in being turned over
to a collection agency. Ouch. When you request a book,
the notification that the book is in says that failure to pick up the book
promptly will result in a $0.50 fine. Huh? If you
write a letter to the public library’s director highlighting the somewhat
draconian tone of its communications, you receive a letter justifying the
library’s terseness (trust me on this one). So despite all of the great things
that the public library does, you’re still left with a bitter taste in your
mouth.

Seth
Godin reminds us
that every interaction with a customer / client / patron /
stakeholder / visitor is a marketing interaction. It’s
an opportunity for us to build or erode our brand, a chance to increase or
decrease the trust and goodwill of the people with whom we are interacting.

What’s this mean for schools? Well, it means that every time a parent walks
away unhappy from an encounter at school, that’s a marketing interaction. Every
time a teacher has yet another boring lesson, that’s a marketing interaction.
Every time a school board member puts her personal agenda ahead of what’s best
for students, that’s a marketing interaction. Every time a member of the
community walks through an uninviting building, that’s a marketing interaction.
And every time an administrator squanders an opportunity to be a leader rather
than a manager, that’s a marketing interaction.

Schools do a host of wonderful things. But they also engage in a number of
individual and organizational behaviors that chip away at the trust and goodwill
of their internal and external communities. We can bemoan the lack of student
engagement / parent support / community involvement / referendum votes all we
want, but our actions probably led to the problem(s) in the first place. Putting
forth a glossy spin on the surface (We’re the best! Support us!) does
no good if we’re not willing to look at our underlying practices as the
marketing interactions that they are.

15 Responses to “My not-so-friendly library, boring teachers, and other marketing interactions”

  1. Great post, Scott. In a way, students, parents and taxpayers are customers of the local school district, right? If they don’t like the customer service or the product, they’ll take their money some place else.

    Interesting to think about. Keep up the good work.

  2. Tyler
    Not just “in a way” are they our customers, there is no fogginess here – that is straight up accurate! A schools customer, clientele, marketplace – whatever you call it – is the student and the family. Scott calls this one right – dead on! Think of being a hotel, restaurant, or other business that relies on effective communication and positive interactions. As schools in general, we need to do better. As a HS principal, we need to do WAY better at the upper levels. The balance is doing right and doing it with the right approach.

  3. So we are turning the 1950’s industrial educational model into a service sector marketing model. Interest thought, but is it really helpful? It is possible to be everything to everyone?

  4. I like that idea of “doing right and doing it with the right approach.” You can serve the best steak in town, but if your server gives customers attitude they’ll leave with a sour taste in their mouth. You can’t have one and not the other.

  5. Tyler, you nailed it. I have a quote in my office that states, “As adults we don’t go where we feel insulted and ridiculed, why would students do otherwise?” No matter how good the steak, you still have to like being there.

    M.Wilson, I like your take on that. I often wonder if we “over fuzzy” some things in an attempt to help people feel good. That is cleary not my intent – it would be to help people feel good about what really IS good and clarify those things that are not up to speed. Sometimes being everything to everybody is actually being the “bad guy” but can be done with tact and respect regardless of the point. Back to steak, you can create a great reputation as a high class restaurant with measley little portions IF you deliver it with a pretty garnish, great service, and even a high price tag.

  6. Hi Scott,
    I wrote a response to this post on my blog, What Message Does Your AUP Send Home?
    http://blog.genyes.com/index.php/2008/05/08/what-message-does-your-aup-send-home/

    The trackback didn’t work, I guess.

    What we send home to parents about school technology is almost always punitive, full of legalese, and uninspiring. We are missing the chance to show parents a vision of technology that is inspiring, and then we wonder why they aren’t on our side.

    Your point is very well made.

  7. So we all agree that the the product is impacted at least equally with the service associated – I’m paraphrasing. In Scott’s library, the product (actually a service by the way) is “a wonderful place” but the service/atmosphere/personality of the communications may overshadow that concept. So what do we do? I have a grocery store that does well, but I run away from the manager/owner when he comes my direction because he is so overbearing and opinionated that I don’t want to deal with him. So I don’t go there unless I must. Track that to the library (now I don’t get good books, information, activities, etc.) and to our school (where our kids attend – probably hating every minute – see my above quote from my office). So WHERE DO WE START?? Can we “eliminate” bad attitudes or the people associated with it, or at least can we eliminate the stale condescending language we seem to love to lay out to parents each year, month, week…day?

  8. Scott,

    As a librarian, I always wonder how to balance our “good guy” “rule guy” roles.

    I think you are spot on that we should be aware what our communications convey to our customers (be they librarian patrons or students).

    I think it involves being extremely mindful of your mission–making sure that everyone understands that mission–so that communications and decisions are aligned with that and show the mindfulness behind them.

    I think fundamental respect for students and parents is part of this. Treating every student like we’d want our own child to be treated, for example?

  9. I think the thing we all need to remember is that people in the outside world – our customers / students / visitors / etc. – don’t care about our internal issues. They don’t care about our lack of capacity, our lack of resources, our internal disagreements or indecision, whatever. All they know is what they see as outsiders. What they see is often negative, and it’s our fault, not theirs.

  10. Scott,

    I think you are exactly right.

    We create the atmosphere that our customers/students see, feel, and experience.

    We have to think about what we want that to be.

  11. Careful folks. I think it is dangerous for educators to see the general public as customers. “Customer” gives the connotation that they bring nothing to the table or are not responsible for what happens in the educational system. “Partners” or “shareholders” are more appropriate terms don’t you think? Nothing can be done in the education without the publics, sometimes tacit, approval.

  12. Your post made me think about my chequered borrowing past. I have just started enjoying the benefits of my alma mater library at Hong Kong University and while they don’t send the heavies around when you are overdue, the system utilises technology in a proactive and helpful way. Every resource I borrow results in me being reminded about when to return it (non-threateningly with fair notice)and has helped me change my label from Book Perp to Responsible Citizen. The whole system is proactive and geared to giving people the help they need to access resources and follow good housekeeping rules at the same time.

  13. “Book Perp.” Ha! Love it! There’s something mildly paradoxical about that.

  14. @M. Wilson

    I agree they are definitely shareholders and partners, but when it comes to greeting them, working with them, and inviting them to be the above, our approach needs to be like customers. I think of the stores that call the customers “Associates” or “Members” and such (sometimes with a price tag) to identify their shared responsibilities and teamwork. Hopefully we still get service when we shop there.

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